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The American eagle has not crashed

By John Hughes / July 10, 2002



SALT LAKE CITY

There's a little media flurry over a controversial article in Foreign Policy magazine by Yale scholar Immanuel Wallerstein suggesting that the American eagle has crash landed, and that US dominance on the world scene has peaked.

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True, there is an ebb and flow of power throughout history. As the French and the Spanish and the British well know, empires rise, then fall. But America's decline is not yet, nor in the foreseeable future.

It is not nationalistic tub-thumping, but simply a statement of fact to record American strength in a number of critical areas.

Militarily the US is formidable. It commands the air and seas as does no other nation. As was proved in the Afghanistan campaign, it is advanced beyond any other country in the development of remote-controlled weaponry.

Its military strength is matched by the strength of its economy – an economy that can shrug off the dotcoms' collapse, a recession, a major terrorist attack, a scandal in some corporate boardrooms, and a sluggish recovery from that recession, while remaining stable and growing.

Formidable power sometimes spurs envy and even enmity from lesser powers, and certainly there is criticism aplenty from foes, and even friends, abroad. Yet it is to America that much of the world turns for diplomatic leadership. For instance, only the United States, it seems, can offer a glimmer of hope for resolution of the seemingly intractable confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the development of new technology, the US leads. As a beacon of democracy, it is the pole of attraction for the oppressed and disadvantaged of many nations.

As an article by two Dartmouth College professors, Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, argues in the current Foreign Affairs magazine, what truly distinguishes the current international system is American dominance in all of these areas simultaneously.

No credible challenger – not China, nor Japan, nor Europe, and certainly not Russia – looms as an early force to topple this current primacy.

What is true is that the Bush administration faces some major decisions as to how it will use this extraordinary power in the remainder of its term, or terms. After the muddled pursuit of foreign policy in the Clinton presidency, the Bush administration is refreshing in its resolve, particularly its grim determination to war against terrorism. But it has some significant political problems at home and abroad.

After their careful initial support of the president's strategy against terrorism, some Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as Al Gore, John Kerry, and Tom Daschle, are beginning to criticize and cavil. On the one hand, the administration has failed to find Osama bin Laden in 10 months. On the other hand, the president warned that the war against terrorism would be a long haul and the polls suggest the American people still support his handling of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the laggard pace of recovery from the recession, and the perfidy of corporate chieftains generally assumed to be in the Republican camp is a nagging problem for the White House.

On the foreign front, the challenge is complex. Leadership requires strength, and that the Bush administration surely offers. Mr. Bush's commitment to preemptive action against those planning harm against America or Americans underlines that. But that does not mean headstrong unilateralism without regard for necessary alliances.

Iraq is a good case in point. Saddam Hussein has broken every norm of international behavior, including his commitment to disclose and destroy his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There could be little moral or legal international carping at his removal, to which the Bush administration seems dedicated. But President Bush will need allies and bases to effect this, as did his father a decade earlier to remove Mr. Hussein's forces from illegally occupying Kuwait.

Besides the ability to project extraordinary military force, American leadership requires a nuanced foreign policy that should include cultivating allies, developing its new relationship with Russia, enlisting the multilateral resources of the United Nations, jump-starting economic development and democratic education in the Islamic world, and encouraging the free-trade policies that appear to have been reversed in some recent White House decisions.

The American eagle has not crashed. To the contrary, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Wohlforth convincingly argue in Foreign Affairs that "standing taller than leading states of the past, the United States has unprecedented freedom to do as it pleases." There may be times when the unilateral use of that authority is necessary and desirable. The challenge for the Bush administration is to determine when to go it alone, and when to act in concert with allies.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is former editor of the Monitor.

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